Rev. Wheaton serves as pastor of discipleship at Bay Park Baptist Church (Ontario, Canada) and has joined the Worldview Church content team as an associate editor.
“...in the communion of the saints...”
From the earliest days Christians have understood the importance of community as an expression of the reality of Christ’s resurrection and the presence of His Kingdom.
We believe in the “communion of the saints” because we understand that the power of God comes to expression through the gifts and witness of Christ’s Body. We also know that, because people are made in the image of God, seeking community is as natural to us as breathing. In communities, people find their identities and flourish in give-and-take of what Bonhoeffer describe as our “life together.”
In recent months, the world has been reminded of the power of community. The uprisings in the Middle East, which brought down hard-line dictatorships, have occurred because of the power of united effort. What has happened in Egypt, Libya, Yemen, and other countries is reminiscent of what occurred in Czechoslovakia, Romania, and East Germany some decades ago. Things happened when communities act together.
But that power can be used for good or evil. For instance, in the spring of 2011, in Vancouver, British Columbia, after the Boston Bruins won the Stanley Cup, riots broke out among disappointed Vancouver fans, causing millions of dollars in damages to their own community. Ordinary citizens who are normally law-abiding suddenly turned destructive as a crowd mentality seized them.
This situation illustrates why questions about the making of a community, the leading of a community, the shaping of a community's direction, and so forth are so crucial.
Nor is it only that the community can be a powerful force. There is a longing in the human heart to belong. Chuck Colson, in a recent BreakPoint column, commented on some journalists’ and writers' discussion of the growing absence of community in North American society. Some are returning to small town life in order to experience it again. Colson explained the importance of community when he wrote:
. . . . We are wired for connection. Genuine human flourishing is only really possible in community. Of course, real communities are messy and involve compromise and even sacrifice, which is why we try to make do with substitutes like the Internet.
As David Brooks noted in his recent New York Times column, Kirk and Dreher are part of the communitarian strain of conservatism, which emphasizes the importance of community, tradition, and place. They are also, not coincidentally, Christians who understand that we are wired to connect because we were created by a God who calls us to fellowship with Him and with each other.
This connectedness is at the heart of Christian teaching about love: both for God and for each other. In our radically individualistic culture today, embracing that connectedness is maybe the most countercultural thing we can do.
In light of both the need for and the power of community, the Church needs to recover what is a central theme of the Scriptures: We need to explore communio sanctorum-- God's holy Community.
One way of thinking about God's work of redemption is to describe it as "the making of a holy community." The creation narratives found in Genesis 1-2 can be structured around this theme. The Pentateuch describes the formation of that community and delivers God's "protocol" for his community. The historical books of the Old Testament describe for us the history of Israel as God's community – a community that failed to embrace its calling and suffered the bitter consequences of its neglect. But, God did not abandon his commitment to create a community.
Jesus came to build that community. He began his public ministry by calling the core of that community, his twelve disciples. They would be the foundation upon which he would build (Eph. 4). To them, he entrusted the truth that would be essential to its stability and future. Through them, he would proclaim it to the world.
Jesus fulfilled His ministry by giving His life for that community to redeem it from sin's judgement, guilt, and power and to make them a holy people for Himself (1 Pet. 2:8-9). His intention is that this community should express the reality of His resurrection life here and now, and, hereafter, should be with Him where he is (Jn. 17).
Revelation concludes with God in the midst of his people drawn from every tribe and tongue in the new heavens and the new earth forming holy community. So community is a pervasive Biblical theme.
But our world is full of that which promotes the opposite of what the Biblical story presents. Ours is an age of narcissism, as Christopher Lasch explained. We are told that what matters is the individual and one's rights. We are urged to serve self and to chase personal dreams. Self-interest drives personal life, family life, work life, leisure life, even religious life. One should hardly expect less if Satan, the archenemy of God and his purposes, were to strategize a way to oppose and destroy those purposes. Aligning ourselves with God, resisting the devil, and doing good for people in our society means that we must be community builders. That is the mandate of the Church!
Many descriptions and images of community life are presented in Scripture--making disciples, preaching the kingdom, preparing the bride of Christ, building a holy temple, and so on. In the columns to come, we will explore the subject of community. What is it like? How does one contribute to building it? What are the threats to community? What are the characteristics of good community? What happens when community is not present? We will root our discussions in Scripture. But, the writings of others and the events of our world will also provide resources for discussion.
The discussion of community cannot be merely personal. It must be a communal event. We want you our readers to join the discussion. Your observations and questions, comments and queries will help us find our way forward in joining God in his purpose to build communio sanctorum.
We profess to believe in communion sanctorum. What does living that belief require of us?
To learn more about the function of the Church set within the broader world community, the Worldview Church staff recommends Christopher Wright’s The Mission of God’s People: a Biblical Theology of the Church’s Mission that can be purchased through the Colson Center bookstore.